Moderator: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.
Julie Leven: Whether or not someone has a home, they still deserve access to the creativity, dignity, and passion of live classical music. Many of our shelter audiences say, “I’m invisible when I’m out there, and you’re looking me in the eye and I don’t feel invisible in here. I feel like a human being.”
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. And joining us today is Julie Leven, who is the founder and executive and artistic director of Shelter Music Boston. Welcome to the program.
Julie Leven: Thank you, Anita. I am honored to be here.
Anita Walker: Well, I am so interested in learning more about your program. You take music into homeless shelters. Tell us more.
Julie Leven: Precisely. I founded this organization a little over five years ago and the point was to put professional musicians to work in unconventional environments. I call them environments of need actually. I knew that classical music would have an enormous impact on a population that is in such distress, a population that, of course, doesn’t have a home, but along with that goes no stability, no security, poverty, substance abuse, mental health problems; all these things that are part of some members of the homeless population. Some individuals in the homeless population suffer from those problems, as well as of course the homeless population is full of people who have tumbled into homelessness through a series of uncontrollable circumstances. Many of those people know a great deal about classical music and for our audiences who don’t know classical music, Shelter Music Boston is a fantastic introduction. That’s also part of the model of the organization, that we want to use classical music, reinvent the purpose of a concert in fact in the 21st Century. So, we have a bit of an activist role here both for the musicians who are committed to our art form and taking care of our responsibility to maintain relevance for our art form. Of course here in Boston, we’re very lucky to have so many thriving classical music organizations, but it is a challenge for many organizations to present our art to everyone. So, our model is that whether or not someone has a home, they still deserve access to the creativity, dignity, and passion of live classical music. We put our words into action by bringing concerts once a month to currently seven shelters. So, in the course of a calendar year, we actually produce between 60 and 70 classical chamber music concerts, all of the highest artistic standards, that is also part of our model, and why I envision the organization to put professional musicians to work. It’s not a volunteer staffed organization at any level. We have the commitment of professionals who commit to a workplace environment, commit to the professionalism and the artistic standards that we put forward, that I put forward. In fact, our role is similar to that– it’s similar, but different to the role of the social worker and the psychiatrist in a homeless shelter. Those professional positions are tasked with reaching homeless individuals in a humane way; looking someone in the eye and saying, “I care about you, and what can I do to help you,” and that is exactly what we do. We come back every month to the same shelters to show that we care about this population and we want to invest in you because we believe this music will give you the support you need, part of the support you need. This music will engender hope and will connect you with us, the musicians and with those around you, and this is what happens during our concerts.
Anita Walker: So, give us a word, two or here since this is a podcast. All of us have experienced a concert in a concert hall, or perhaps a performance on the esplanade, or outdoors and we know what that looks like and we know what that feels like. What does it look like and feel like to see a concert like this in a homeless shelter?
Julie Leven: Thank you. That’s a great question. So, most of the environments we play in are not by any means a pristine concert environment. We play in the common space in the shelters, which is the equivalent of the living room for those who are being sheltered where we play. And so, any kind of leisure activity that a homeless individual would like to participate in has to happen in that space. Some people want to play cards. In fact, the place where we play is always the place where the TV set is and it is a big deal to turn off the TV set in a homeless shelter, especially on sports night. Luckily, our audiences have come to value our concert so much that we don’t have to fight with the TV. So, we’re in the common space. At the Shattuck Shelter where we have been playing since I founded the organization; so every month for five and a half years now, we play in the space that is in between the dormitory and the kitchen. So, individuals who need to get into the kitchen are walking through the concert space while we’re playing. There’s a loud speaker that goes off while we’re playing because it’s a space where the staff needs to get in touch with various people who are elsewhere in the shelter. There are people having conversations in different languages. So, in fact, the music is one language that everyone can understand.
Anita Walker: What was it like the first time you called up a shelter and said, “We want to bring classical music in”? Did they say, “Seriously? Are you kidding,” or maybe just one time, kind of a do-gooder thing?
Julie Leven: Exactly. It’s another wonderful question. So, I reached out to the Shattuck Shelter because I have a friend who is a psychiatrist on the staff there and said to her, “Who should I contact where you work because I’ve heard stories of where you work and I know that this music will have an impact there.” So, she connected me to the appropriate person who in fact I met with and she listened. To her credit, she was respectful to me and said, “Okay. Well, we’ll give this a try. She later told me she thought I was just kind of out of my mind. In fact, she has been kind enough to record an interview on some of our material on our website and her words are, “What are the shelter guests going to do with classical music?” This too has become a central component of our activism, to break assumptions of what classical music can achieve and who classical music is for because–
Anita Walker: And who is in the shelter.
Julie Leven: And who is in the shelter, exactly; all of these assumptions. Now that I’ve worked in shelters for five and a half years, I know who’s in the shelter; individuals just like us who have had a number of problems in their lives that have just tumbled them into the circumstance. And any one of us could be there at any moment. It’s very humbling to work there. So, she said, “Okay. We’ll give it a try” and to her credit, she told me after the first concert, “Within the first five minutes I was amazed at what I saw.” The shelter guests sat quietly. They were engaged. They were smiling. People were happy. After we left they were calm and relaxed. The staff was thrilled. They’re able to do their job in a more efficient way when the shelter guests are calm and relaxed, and the shelter, a homeless shelter is a very stressful, volatile environment. As I said, many people don’t speak the same verbal language, as well as dealing with inordinate struggles. It’s just a terrible time in the lives of the people who are staying there, and there’s a lot of tension. So, to bring in a beautiful event that gathers everyone together, that enables people to be together in a happy and stimulating way because people love to learn things, that provides calm, hope, and energy. People are energized as well as relaxed. So, the staff have come to love us. It’s fantastic, and we’re happy to assist them in doing their jobs.
Anita Walker: When this idea first occurred to you, and I have to ask you, what brought this idea to mind, but what was your original ambition or hope? What did you think the outcome, or the transformative effect would be of bringing classical music to homeless shelters?
Julie Leven: Well, so, that’s quite a number of questions there and I’ll try to be succinct in answering them. I was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times about a violinist in New York who had done something similar. When I read that article, I had one of those moments that some of us have a handful of times in our live when we say, “That’s it. I have to do that.” At that moment, I envisioned the whole thing. It’s going to be a social service organization. It is not a performing arts presenter. It’s a social service organization and the social service we deliver happens to be an artistic product of classical music. I want everyone to see that classical music is for everyone. It’s not inherently exclusive. It is meant to be enjoyed and embrace everyone, and that’s what I want to achieve by taking it to a population that desperately needs what classical music has to offer and a population that many people assume would have nothing to do with this beautiful art form. So, I set to work immediately with one other colleague and initially we did volunteer in the shelter, but I always knew I wanted to pay the musicians and have musicians make a professional commitment to this. So, as soon as we started, I started the process of applying for a 501(c)(3) status and once we achieved that, the very next week, we had a fundraising event. I had been documenting our concerts since the moment we started. So, we had quite a bit of material to present to potential funders about what we had achieved with our concerts even before we were legally able to do fundraising. But once we were, we had a funder base and from there, it’s been a growth process that involved me going to the BU School of Management for a one year certificate program. I saw my non-profit growing. I knew I knew how to produce concerts. I had been involved in that my entire professional life, but I wanted to make sure this organization would thrive as a non-profit. As artists, we are not educated in those kinds of business skills. Our artistic education is extremely full with other skill acquisitions. So, I benefited greatly from year at BU, and then I was selected to be the first ever classical music social innovator by the Social Innovation Forum. I had two years of interaction with the Social Innovation Forum that was– which is basically a non-profit accelerator. And so, there was a great deal invested in the organization and in me to enable the mission to be showcased in fact to funders, philanthropic organizations across the state and to build networks that would enable the organization to become sustainable and thrive, and have an impact, an innovative impact.
Anita Walker: So, I suppose shelters could just play classical music on CDs. There’s got to be something more powerful about the live performance.
Julie Leven: Precisely. Precisely, because of course, we have our audience members who say, “Classical music, that’s not for me,” and they bring their assumptions to the concert, and yes, and that is why our concerts are extremely interactive. We want people to say afterwards that, “I had no idea that had something for me,” and that’s what we want. That’s what we achieve every time. As I said earlier, by telling the stories of the people who wrote this music, they were people too and they had tough lives, many of them. They had human lives, and this was their creative expression, and this is what they did with the troubles in their lives. They put it into this art form. There was an amazing story of a gentleman in the Pine Street Men’s Inn who had suffered a car accident and had suffered a great deal of memory loss and he said to me after we played a 20th Century violin and viola duo by a Hungarian composer who perished in the Holocaust named Laszlo Weiner, this gentleman said, “I heard my story in that piece. No one has understood my story. That man knew my story too.” This gentleman was thrilled that someone could express what he was feeling in his own personal tragedy and of course, that composer had had a personal tragedy as well, but he had written this music before that, and this man felt connected to humanity because somebody else knew his story and we had played it for him in Pine Street Men’s Inn. So, we want our audiences to ask us a lot of questions. We welcome questions about what it’s like to be a musician. We’re very clear to tell our audiences we are professional musicians, and coming here is a part of our work lives because we want everyone to hear this music, and we commit to shelters and other places where classical music concerts don’t typically take place because we want to make sure everyone gets access to this. That alone is mind boggling to our audiences because then they hear the music. They hear a concert that they realize these people play at Symphony Hall. Now, I play in the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. So, our audiences say, “Are you playing on the esplanade on the Fourth of July?” And I say, “Yes, I am and I’m here tonight to play this music for you because I want you to have it just as much as everybody else.” They are floored by that.
Anita Walker: Because what they’re hearing you say is they matter.
Julie Leven: Exactly.
Anita Walker: And they have value. The most amazing music in the world belongs to them as much as everybody else.
Julie Leven: Precisely and that’s exactly what we want our audiences to feel and to believe. We make it true, and that’s part of why we return and why the same musicians return; why the faces are known. The names are known to the shelter audiences because we are investing in these people whether or not the rest of the world is at this time in their lives. Of course, the shelters are doing remarkable jobs of supporting the population that is there serving. But, life on the street is very, very difficult. Many of our shelter audiences say, “I’m invisible when I’m out there and you’re looking me in the eye and I don’t feel invisible in here. I feel like a human being.”
Anita Walker: Amazing work. Julie Leven, director of Shelter Music Boston, another of our Creative Minds Out Loud. Thank you very much. It’s been an honor to speak with you.
Moderator: For more on this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.
#### End ####